What does it take to turn a congregation around? Ed Brandt, a long-serving pastor who recently retired as chief of chaplains for the U.S. National Guard, believes success in ministry is grounded in the hard but essential work of reaching out to the community, forging new connections, getting to know people, listening, earning trust, taking risks, and learning from mistakes.
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What does it take to turn a congregation around? In this episode, Ed Brandt, a long-serving pastor who recently retired as chief of chaplains for the U.S. National Guard, shares that he believes success in ministry is grounded in the hard but essential work of reaching out to the community, forging new connections, getting to know people, listening, earning trust, taking risks, and learning from mistakes.
Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is retired Brigadier General Ed Brandt. Brig. Gen. Brandt is the pastor of Lely Presbyterian Church and he has had a storied service career. Our focus for this podcast is turning congregations around. Ed, I’m so happy that you’re joining us today. Can you share a little of your story, so the audience can become acquainted with you and what you’ve done?
Ed Brandt: Well, Douglas, thank you so much for having me on the podcast. I really appreciate the opportunity to share stories and maybe some insights that may or may not be helpful to people. First of all, it’s not Brig. Gen. Brandt. It’s Ed. That works really well. Just don’t call me “Mr. Ed” like the horse on that old TV show. Number two, I was raised in the Churches of God General Conference, a fairly conservative denomination primarily located in eastern Pennsylvania. My parents were members of that church. They raised five kids in that church, and I became very involved in that church growing up. Eventually, I went to a church-affiliated college, went to a Presbyterian seminary, and went back to the Churches of God. And it was like a “round peg, square hole” kind of experience. In 1987, I made the jump to the Presbyterian Church USA as a pastor serving churches in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Southern California, and Michigan. And along the way, I joined the National Guard, where I served in Baghdad, Iraq, for about a year. So those experiences have been in both large churches and small churches, rural churches, suburban churches, urban churches. And no matter where you go, you’re caring for people. That’s all the matters — your care for people.
Douglas Powe: You also served in the National Guard and just retired recently. Can you just share a little bit about your time served in the Guard?
Ed Brandt: Absolutely. I’m almost embarrassed to say that if you look at my family history and you go back to the Civil War, my family was raised Mennonite in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and so one of my relatives refused to bear arms and spent time in prison for that during the Civil War. So, they have that. My uncle served in Vietnam. He served there for a year. I’m very proud of that service that he has.
I served my first church in the hills of Pennsylvania, up in Perry County, Pennsylvania. At a senior citizens’ board meeting, the local insurance agent came to me and said, “Ed, have you thought about the National Guard?” I said, “No, I’ve never thought about the National Guard.” And he replied, “We always need chaplains.” And so, I made the application process and eventually in 1989 was commissioned. Earl Brooks was the state chaplain, God rest his soul. And I remember Earl Brooks saying to me, “Don’t worry. You’ll never be deployed. Maybe a flood. Maybe a prison riot. But don’t worry, nothing will ever happen.” And, boy, have times changed since 1989. Again, my idea was I did one weekend a month, two weeks a year.
Then, I took a church in Delaware where I made the switch to the Delaware National Guard. And then, at that point, I took a church in southern California because I always wanted to live in southern California. It’s a great place. And then I got deployed for a year to Baghdad, Iraq. Coming back from that deployment, I remained full time in the Guard up until May of 2020. And I’ve got to tell you, Douglas, all along the way, you have these incredible opportunities to meet people from various walks of life. And the joy is hearing their stories. Hearing stories from other people helps me adjust my understanding of life. Being raised in a very, very conservative county and a very conservative denomination, to meet people and hear their stories and their struggles, it really does open your eyes and open your spirit to how people have experienced the world in ways I haven’t. So, it made me reflect upon my life and the benefits I’ve had. And it made me eternally grateful. And it also provides an opportunity for me to give to others.
Douglas Powe: Thank you, I appreciate it. And it really is a joy to get to speak with you, given your rich history and various places of living in different worlds and bringing those worlds together.
Ed Brandt: That’s a key phrase. Bringing worlds together. I think what happens in today’s society is that we live in such separate worlds, separate tribes, if you will. And we don’t even want to build a bridge of understanding. We want to say, “This is my world, and my world is right.” And that’s just not the way to live.
Douglas Powe: I want to begin our conversation and ask you — you’ve pastored many congregations, and you’ve seen other congregations and spoken with many pastors. And a common thread today runs through many of these. There’s this uphill battle and climb towards vitality that congregations are struggling with. Can you share why you think there’s such an uphill climb towards vitality?
Ed Brandt: My answer is going to anger some of your listeners. We have some lazy clergy out there. That’s the bottom line for me. They’re lazy. And they’re afraid of trying new things because they are afraid of failure. And sometimes I think there’s a leadership piece that is missing. Now, that’s not everybody. Please, that does not apply to everybody. But if you want to be innovative, you have to be creative. That creativity requires a little bit of leadership, taking some risk, being willing to get your hands slapped a little bit.
Let me tell you one story. A friend of mine at a church was interviewing for a new associate pastor. And they met with the associate pastor candidate, and the normal questions were asked about what to do and this and that. And then they turned around and asked the candidate, “What questions do you have?” And the person said, “Well, we’ve been taught in seminary about boundaries.” “Okay. Boundaries are great. What boundaries are you speaking of?” And the person replied, “We were taught in seminary not to work more than 35 hours a week.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Name me one profession — the medical profession, the legal profession, the clergy — where you can succeed or make an impact in 35 hours a week?” Now, there’s a danger, there’s always a danger of being a workaholic and being in it for yourself or your own reputation, that kind of thing. But it takes a lot of effort. If you’re trying to revitalize a congregation it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. I look at it as like a new tech startup, in many ways, trying to get something off the ground. And so, for me, whether it be in the hills of Perry County or Wilmington, Delaware, or in the Pacific Palisades, California, or even here in Naples, Florida, I’ve always found it valuable to get involved in the local community, to make connections with people, to make yourself available. It reminds me — remember the movie with Robin Williams? “Dead Poets Society”? He’s in front of his classroom and says, “Open the book to the first page. Now rip that out.” I think we need to rip some pages out with some of our practical theological books that just don’t connect with today’s society. And maybe not just practical theology, maybe just the way you run a church, the way you get involved in the community. But you have to think in new ways. We’ve got the book knowledge. Got that down. But when you apply it, …. I’ll tell you one quick story.
At the first church I served in Perry County, Pennsylvania, I went to visit with David Meyers to introduce myself. He’s the local funeral director. It was your typical thing. The funeral home is out back. The furniture store is out front. It was one of those deals. And I had just graduated from seminary. And he said to me, “Okay, Ed. Where’d you get your education.” And I said, “I went to Princeton Seminary.” And he said, “Wrong. You’re going to get your education here.” And those were probably the truest words he ever said. It’s getting to know people, the practical application of things, learning from mistakes. It’s like baptism by fire. But it was a great learning experience for me, having those challenges. You know, having those late-night meetings where you’re talking about what color to paint the restrooms. Those are the tattoos that will never be scraped off my body. They are there, you know. So that is a short answer to a very complex question.
Douglas Powe: Yeah, thank you. You said a couple of things. I would start back where you said you’re going to anger some of the audience. So, how would you respond if I’m one of those people in the audience that says, “You know, I work hard at being creative. I’m working 65, 70 hours a week. But I have individuals who just don’t want to do anything. It all falls on my shoulders.” So, how would you respond to that?
Ed Brandt: Find new individuals. Find new people. I hate to say it that way. Find new people. Sometimes you reach a point where it’s about finding new people. It’s like the Wedding Feast. Okay, we’ve invited all these people and they’re not coming. So, you know what? Let’s go and find some other people who might want to join them. And sometimes you’ll be surprised at who will step up to the plate. For example, at Lely Presbyterian Church, we are now on the verge of going to two services because it’s “in season” and people are coming from the north down south. Blah, blah, blah. And so, we’re looking at that and we’re just trying to figure out ways to incorporate people. Now, I’ve told people, you know, “One new person is super. Two new people are great. Three new people and they’re taking over.” That’s how it’s looked at in the life of the church. You have to prepare people. It’s mentoring people and engaging people, and it’s not being afraid to work really hard and know that some of your efforts will fail. Gore-Tex is located in Delaware. Some of the folks who work there were members of the church I served. And when they do an annual evaluation, one of the questions they ask is, “What did you fail at?” If you didn’t fail at anything, you didn’t try hard enough to do something new.
I think we have to make some compromises along the way. So, I’ll get invited to different veterans’ groups because of my background. It may be on a Saturday morning. I’m, like, “Sorry boys, but I like to sleep in.” But I go. And maybe it’s a Friday night. But I go. And, again, I’m at a different stage of life. My kids are grown. I don’t have small kids like other folks might. By all means, do not sacrifice your family on the altar of service. But you have to make some compromises along the way of what’s important. You have to know in your own mind what the priorities are and if you are going to say “Yes” to them or “No” to them. I can’t determine that for you.
Douglas Powe: Thank you. That was helpful. Let me pick up another thread of this again, thinking of that person who would be talking with you and responding. I think one of the questions that individual would ask is, “So, what do I do? So, how do I turn this thing around?” What are some of these practical steps you’re thinking of? You’re not talking about someone trying to create a megachurch, are you? For you, vitality has nothing to do with size. It has to do with impact.
Ed Brandt: It has to do with impact. I would say a couple things. Number one, how do you communicate with people? Do you communicate with people? Are you available to people? Are you an extrovert or an introvert? If you’re an introvert, that’s another challenge. It really is. I’m an extrovert, off the charts extrovert. So, I think that plays in my favor. I can walk into a crowd of strangers and come out with, like, 15 business cards. I make connections with people. That’s just the way I’m wired, the way I was raised. That’s just me.
For example, when I first started here at Lely Church, as I did at the Wilmington Church and other churches, I got out the church directory and I just start calling people, A to Z. “Hey, how you doing? I’m your new pastor. I want to touch base. Any concerns? Looking forward to connecting with you on Sunday.” Most cases today, you get the voice mail, you leave a voice mail. Just because someone doesn’t answer doesn’t mean you don’t leave a voicemail. Communicate. The constant contact is a great outreach of showing people that there’s something happening here in the congregation.
And I think the third thing is meeting with the elders to say, “Are you okay with what this plan is?”, so you have buy-in from the leadership. You want the leadership to be on your side, so to speak. They need to be aware of what you plan to do. You need to communicate with them about that plan to get the necessary approvals, the necessary funding so as you move forward it isn’t like, “Oh, look! There he or she goes again, getting no permission.” That’s not what you want to have happen.
You can create and you can control, in some ways, the narrative. For example, my grandmother — I was raised with my grandmother and great aunts because that’s who was around the family — and if you called my grandmother, and you told her call “X, Y, Z”, she would get on the phone and call the people: “X, Y, Z.” It’s like a chain that would take place. And so, the point is, as you talk with people, share what your vision and mission is for the life of the church that you’re serving. Talk to people who have nothing else to do but to talk to people, and they will tell people. It’s like whisper down the lane. Now, hopefully, they don’t get it wrong. But it’s like whisper down the lane.
I try to go to every single event I can possibly squeeze into my schedule. When I get a business card from somebody, I put that into my contact list. I send them a note thanking them — great to meet them. We started this thing called Minutes for Mission. It’s not just the missions we support. We have invited representatives of local businesses around our community. “What do you do? What do you sell? Who are you?” We’ve had a wine and cheese mixer on the first Thursday of each month to invite people from the neighborhood. It’s these connections. It takes some work. It takes some knocking on doors; it takes some cold calls. But I find that invigorating. If I get stuck, I usually go out and see people. That’s what I do.
Douglas Powe: I like it. I’m fascinated by the inviting people from the community for these one-minute Minutes for Mission. Have you found that when they come and share that they’re thankful? Because it really has helped them to make a connection with individuals they probably would not have connected with if they had not been invited to the congregation.
Ed Brandt: Let’s go back to what I started with. Everybody has a story and, in today’s world, the way you tell your stories is either on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. You don’t know who’s reading it. But if you can tell your story and there’s always a little personal piece to it, on Sunday morning, and it resonates or connects with the congregation, and then there’s coffee hour afterwards, and people engage that — that goes so far. It makes a connection because here are people who have heard what you’re saying. For example, I joined the Chamber of Commerce here in Naples and met a lot of people. So, we had Brittany Brown here on Sunday morning. She talked about Big Sisters/Big Brothers, and it was well received. We met her afterwards. Got a picture. She got a picture. We sent her the clip that she can use for promo purposes. We take that clip and embed it in our Constant Contact. We take that clip and put it on our Facebook, our Twitter or Instagram. You know, it’s communication. How many people look at it? We can’t always see. But it’s just communicating what’s being done. People appreciate the chance to tell their story.
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Douglas Powe: Yeah, that’s a that’s a great lesson and one, hopefully, people will take away — giving people the chance to tell their story. So, one more question in this vein. As you’re doing all the things you just talked about, you always have people in a congregation that aren’t going to be happy. I often use the example, if I gave everybody in the congregation $5, somebody’s going to come out and say, “You know I deserve $10 because I do all these other things that the others don’t do.” So, someone’s always not happy. So, when you’ve done these things and you’re making changes, how do you deal with the pushback and the people who aren’t happy with what’s going on? How do you try to help them to move and journey with you?
Ed Brandt: Well, first of all, you have to make a choice of how much time to invest in people who will never get it. You can make the case, “Here’s why we’re doing it.” Again, when I introduce people, I say, “This is part of our Get to Know Your Neighbors Series. We’re inviting people from around the businesses.” What really helped — going back a step — was when we did the wine and cheese mixers, we had the members of the session; and members of the church came. A lot of folks who were doing the Minutes for Mission were there, and they got to meet them. And it’s like prepping the battlefield — I hate to use that term in the church. But it’s prepping, preparing, plowing the ground, if you will, making it softer for people to understand what’s happening. It’s that communication piece. If it was just out of the blue and no knows what’s happening or why it’s happening, I think you create your own problems. But I think you lay the groundwork; you follow through. And there might be some people saying, “I just don’t get it.” “Well, I understand that. I hope you understand we’re doing it to reach out to community.” And there’s some people you will never please. There was a bank years ago that actually fired its customers because they were taking up too much time complaining about things. “Hey, listen, we know you’re a customer. But you’re really taking up too much of our time administratively, so we don’t need your accounts anymore.” I don’t want to do that as a church. But you reach a point where you can spend 80% of your time with 20% of the people who just are not happy, never will be happy. So, you make a choice. You make a choice, and those choices can be tough sometimes.
Douglas Powe: Yeah. No, that’s great.
Ed Brandt: That’s the leadership piece. I mean you have to have some thick skin. My skin is not always that thick. But you have to have some thick skin, believe in what you’re doing, believe you’ve done the best to communicate it. And say, “I’m really sorry, but here’s where the church has decided to go under my leadership. There was a cartoon, I think in Christian Christianity, years and years ago, going back 30 years. There’s this bulletin board, and the flyer on the bulletin board says: Pastor’s Retreat, October 16-17. And one person says to the other, “That’s the problem. Too many pastors are retreating.” And I believe that.
Douglas Powe: I like it! As you’ve done this work, I have to imagine, and you talked about this earlier, that if you’re going to try things, some things aren’t going to work, right? To use a baseball analogy, you get paid millions of dollars if you can hit 300, which is just three out of 10. Can you talk about some of the missteps that have taken place as you’ve tried things and what you’ve learned from those and how you deal with them? Because I think you’re right. Oftentimes we’re afraid to do things because we’re afraid of failure. We don’t think about it in terms of what I just said — in baseball, if I hit 300, I’m doing a great job. We think we’ve got to hit it right every single time. So, how have you dealt with those missteps?
Ed Brandt: I think one thing is, we go to a congregation, and we may have in our own mind “Here’s what they need. I’m going to tell them what they need. I’m going to tell them how the Bible should be understood. I’m going to tell them what the issues are today.”, while forgetting the fact that there are folks in that congregation who have been there for 20, 30, 40 years. And they have listened to clergy just like me showing up. And they probably know some of the biblical stories and the application better than I do. So, I think there’s a need to listen. There’s a need to learn the culture, learn the place that is there, learn the people, understand them, and listen. And that’s why it’s so important to pick up a phone and call people and say, “Hey, I’m Ed Brandt. I’m your new pastor. It’s great to be here. I’d love to see you. Like to stop by for a chat.” Something like that. When you don’t do that, I think you make a tremendous mistake. The second thing is making sure, if you have ideas, you don’t just go off on your own and implement them without running them by somebody. You know, there’s a governing body of the church. We call it the Session in the Presbyterian Church, maybe a Board in a Baptist church, or whatever. That may be the elected board, but you need to identify the people who really, really run the place. They are not always elected.
I had an idea one time at a church in Pennsylvania. They said, maybe you need to go see Mrs. Lincoln. I said, “She’s not on our board. “They said, “You might want to go see Mrs. Lincoln.” And I did. And, you know, I got an earful about some concerns she had. But, once you listen, you build the trust. It’s building trust with people. And I know, sometimes we want to be prophetic, and we want to be that voice up there, like a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And you can’t do that unless you have the trust of the congregation that you’re serving and leading. And that trust is built over something as simple as being there when someone’s dying, being there when someone’s in the hospital, being there for a wedding, knowing that you as a pastor have their interest at heart. This isn’t just a meal ticket for you. This is something you’re called to do, that you’re committed to, and you’d give every fiber of your being to carry it through. And that’s the kind of trust that once you have it, you can do almost anything you want. But you’ve got to build and earn the trust.
Douglas Powe: I think you’re absolutely right. When you earn that trust, people are willing to go with you. I’ve thought about this before, but I don’t know that I’ve ever asked it. But what happens when you make a mistake, and you break the trust? How do you gain that trust back?
Ed Brandt: It all depends on what the mistake is. You know, if you’re talking about financial malfeasance or sexual malfeasance, you ain’t coming back. And for those who try to hold on because of the stature, the status, the paycheck — some of these places pay very well, you’re doing more long-term damage to the congregation. We have to remember this, too. The way we act, the way we behave, the decisions we make, the words we use, how we interact with people — it’s not just you. You are representing a group of people who profess to be called by God, to serve the people of God in a faithful way. And when you screw that up, it’s not just you. It is everybody. It’s a mar, it’s a scar on that group of people who are trying to do faithful work. And when we try to do self-preservation, it does more damage than good sometimes. There’s an old book, it goes back 30 years, by Jackson Carroll called As One with Authority. You may be familiar with it. Where do you get your sense of authority? Is that the sheepskins on the wall? Is it the titles? Or is it the fact that you’ve earned that authority? I think you need to earn that trust with people.
Douglas Powe: You just set me up for my next question, I appreciate it. So, this may be an unfair question in some ways, but when you walk into these congregations, there’s no denying, even though you’re very generous and you say to call you Ed, people still know your background and there’s a certain respect that is paid for the service that you have rendered. Someone who’s 27 and just walking out of seminary doesn’t necessarily have that same sort of pedigree that you have. So, can that person do some of the things you’ve talked about without that pedigree that you have or bring with you when you walk into a congregation?
Ed Brandt: Absolutely. And here’s why I say that. The pedigree is something that grows over time. People build reputations by what they do, not because of their last name or where they are from or their socio-economic status. And we make a mistake by ascribing certain values to people because of their socio-economic status when they may have no talent at all. I was that 27-year-old kid who entered the church out of seminary. And again, like I said, my background is extrovert. I made the phone calls. I connected with people. I did the house calls. And those home calls may not be popular in 2022 like they were in 1985, 1986, 1987. But the fact that you’re reaching out to people, that you’re connected to people, makes a big, big difference. And so, I would say to any 27-year-old, 26-year-old, leaving seminary and entering into a congregation, “Jump into that big pond of water. Get soaking wet. Don’t be afraid. There’s a life vest there. And people want to see you succeed.” The majority of people in most congregations want to see the church become full of vitality. They want to see that happen. And chances are most people don’t want to speak against those who are the naysayers half the time. You know, I’ve always had naysayers. You know, I look at it this way. I’ve lasted longer than Jesus did. He did three years. I’m going to 30. That’s probably an unfair comparison, but anyways ….
Douglas Powe: I understand what you’re saying. As we get ready to bring it to a close, you’ve mentioned leadership a few times as we’ve been talking. I’m wondering if there are some thoughts and insights you may have of what we can do at the seminary level or even once somebody gets out of seminary to better help pastors build those leadership characteristics that you may have learned in the National Guard or in other places? That would be helpful for us in our preparation.
Ed Brandt: A couple things. Number one is do not try to do things by yourself. Find a mentor, a trusted advisor that you can confide in, that you can bounce ideas off of and get some solid advice from, who has your best interests at heart. That’s number one. Number two, read the leadership stuff that’s out there. Read business manuals about how people make decisions, how they how they make priorities, how they care for people. There was a big thing years ago called “management by walking around.” I call it “ministry by walking around.” You walk around. You meet people. You sit down with people. It takes two minutes, I’m a big believer in two-minute phone calls with folks to find out how they’re doing. It’s touching base. They don’t want to have a long conversation. You don’t want a long conversation. But they want to know that you care for them. It takes two minutes to do that. The third thing is don’t be afraid to make decisions that you believe are right and suffer the consequences. It’s a growing opportunity. When we make mistakes, it’s not failure, it’s growing. I gave an award to a young woman over in Amsterdam who was injured in the Afghanistan war. Her leg was blown off with an IED. And she started this foundation to care for wounded soldiers over in the Dutch army. And she says, “Do not be defined by how you get down. Be defined by how you get back up.” And I think that is so true for all of us to remember. Do not be defined by your failures. Be defined by how you recover from your failures That to me is crucial.
Douglas Powe: Well, I appreciate it. And I really appreciated you talking about the walk around style of management. My team will say that’s my style. Every morning, I walk around.
Ed Brandt: That’s a great style. That’s a wonderful style. You can’t beat that. If you just come to work and go to your office and shut the door, what are you accomplishing? Thank you so much for the opportunity. I really appreciated the questions and the conversation. It’s been good.
Douglas Powe: I’ve enjoyed it immensely. This has been great. And I appreciate your taking the time. And it’s great having you be a part of this.
Ed Brandt: Okay, sir. Thanks so much.
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